When it comes to any product that you apply to the surface of a painted car, understanding the difference is crucial for enthusiasts and aspiring detailers alike. Understanding this terminology (like the difference between a clay and a compound) is important, but just as important is when to use one vs the other.

Knowing exactly when to use a compound or a clay I admittedly was a little fuzzy on myself before doing research, so thought I would outline 7 different types of products you will commonly see whenever browsing the car care section. There is a wealth of information on these specific products and their benefits online, but the goal is to help you understand what each product is used for, and how they relate to on another.

last step products

The chart above will give you a basic idea of how each of these products interacts with the clear coat to remove scratches or imperfections. Many of these products you will find contain very minimal diminishing abrasives which are totally safe unless you have an older car with no clear coat.

There are dozens of different types of cleaning products, but in this blog, I’ll focus on those usually applied to paint.

Compounds

car compound

When trying to hide normal scratches on a car, you are probably going to end up using some sort of a compound if these scratches are visible, but not too major. You can use polishes on some occasions (more on that in a minute), but compounds are typically what you start with for big scratches.

Compounds are abrasive, which allows them to eat through the clear coat of your vehicle that has been penetrated by a key, fingernail, etc, causing the scratch. Compounds allow you to basically sand down the ugly, jagged edges of the penetrated clear coat (visible as a scratch) until you reach a smooth portion of the clear coat that blends with the rest of your car.

If you can gently run your your fingernail over the scratch and you don’t feel an indention, chances are you will be able to remove it with using compound. This YouTube video by AMMO NYC I found to be incredibly helpful to understand this concept if you are interested.

There are two types of compounds to understand: rubbing compound and polishing compound.

Rubbing Compound

Rubbing compounds are what you start with when removing scratches, and is the most abrasive form of compound. These usually come in tubs as pastes, but can also be in liquid form. These you will want to typically apply with an orbital buffer to save some elbow grease, but can also be applied by hand using an applicator pad or soft cloth.

Key Benefits: Great for removing scratches that waxes, scratch remover, or polish can’t.

Potential Drawbacks: Can damage paint if too much clear coat taken away.

Polishes

car polish

Polishing Compound

Polishing compound refers to any polish that is slightly abrasive. This polish should be used after a rubbing compound is applied, and basically helps to further smooth the surface of the clear coat (similar to the role of fine grit sandpaper).

Polishing compound is also good for very faint scratches that need to be removed. I picked up a bottle of polishing compound made by Turtle Wax, and it alone did not remove some scratches when applied. The level of abrasion simply wasn’t able to remove some surface scratches.

Chemical Polishes

As opposed to polishing compound, which is a mechanical polish (using abrasives), a chemical-based polish won’t contain these gritty particles capable of penetrating the clear coat. It can be used to remove water spots or small surface contaminants, but won’t be effective on treating most scratches. Another type of polishes are chrome polishes, which are usually non abrasive as well.

Many times glazes and polishes are used interchacheably, but just know that a true polish is abrasive, and meant to be used after a compound. Glazes are used after these products to give a vehicle that mirrored finish.

Key Benefits: Removes light scratches, great for minor surface imperfections and after compounding

Potential Drawbacks: Some are more effective than others

Clays

car clay kit

One thing to remember about clays (or clay bars), is that they are used to pick up surface contaminants that can stick to the finish. Unlike compounds that are used to tackle problem areas like scratches, clays are generally applied to the entire vehicle.  A few of these contaminants may include:

  • Tiny brake dust particles
  • Industrial fallout (metallic particles)
  • Bugs and dried insect particles
  • Asphalt or tar particles

These particles can cause damage if exposed to your car for a long period of time, since they are pretty difficult to remove after washing and even waxing. Over time, they can eat into the paint if not properly removed, leading to rusting.

Clays help trap these particles within the clay bar itself, resulting in a silky smooth finish on the vehicle surface. Keep in mind, that claying is not necessary on a frequent basis, and can damage your vehicle if used improperly. There are different grades of clays, depending on the level of buildup.

One detailer described the claying process for cars like you would someone visiting the emergency room – it’s not something that’s necessary every week as long as you’re taking care of your vehicle.

Key Benefits: Improves slickness and smoothness of finish by removing contaminants washing alone cannot

Potential Drawbacks: Can streak or leave a hazy film if not enough lubricant is used with clay

Glazes

car glaze

Glazes are one of those products that fall into the category of Last Step Products (LSPs in the detailing world) but one of the few products that don’t last more than a few days. Glazes are great for special occasions or quick detailing where you don’t want to apply a wax or other LSP but won’t last long.

Aesthetically glazes look great for a few days, but quickly begin to lose their luster on their own, which is why many detailers and enthusiasts tend to avoid them. Most of the time these contain pretty mild abrasives (or non at all) to fill in imperfections. Most  contain oil, water, and glycol (responsible for that wet look).

Key Benefits: A wet, high-gloss shine, best when used before a wax or sealant

Potential Drawbacks: Little standalone protection, very temporary

Waxes

car wax

Waxes are probably the most common Last Step Product you will see everywhere. They come from palm trees as carnauba, and either liquefied or melted to a paste. These are very closely related to sealants when in spray form, and in reality it is just one of the options you have when looking for a protectant after washing.

Quick Details/Spray Waxes vs Pastes

Another variation of waxes are sprays that contain at least some percentage of wax are sometimes called quick details (QDs) or spray waxes. Some of these are great that I’ve used, but some that I’ve used can leave streaking or a haze-like finish if not applied properly.

High quality pastes are going to give you better results than sprays, due to the nature in which they are applied, and their ability to really adhere to the paint.

Key Benefits: provides a smooth, natural looking finish and can remove water spots and small scratches

Potential Drawbacks: Pastes take a lot of time to apply

Sealants

car sealant

Sealants and waxes are very closely related, the only difference being that sealant can be applied much quicker than wax in spray form and are synthetic formulas whereas waxes can be organic or synthetic. These are highly hydrophobic, so these sprays will usually be better at keeping rain off of your vehicle when compared to waxes.

I have heard of people using both, but it’s really a little overkill depending on your vehicle’s condition.  Applying a wax on top of a sealant can be difficult to do due to the hydrophobic nature of sealants.

Sealants are going to give your car a mirror like finish, which is why some detailers like to finish with them as last step.

Key Benefits: Mirror like shine, superior protection against the elements.

Potential Drawbacks: A more unnatural gloss finish when compared to waxes

Coatings

auto coating

Coatings are relatively new in the consumer detailing world, and not something that amateurs are going to want to attempt to apply. Without going into too much detail, they are going to be the ultimate layer of protection, because it essentially acts as a clear coat.

There are several different types of coatings from glass to silicate, but ceramic or nano coatings are the ones I see most often. I would probably have a ceramic coating applied by a body shop or professional, however there have been consumer DIY kits available in recent years.

The main difference between coatings and sealants are that coatings usually last anywhere from 8 months to a couple of years vs a few months with sealants. Many DIY products like Hydro Silex ‘claim’ to be a spray on ceramic coating and sealant, but act more like good consumer grade sealants.

A good ceramic coatings will be applied with gloves, contain harsh chemicals and can really help to protect your car for 1-2 years.

Key Benefits: Ultimate level of protection against oxidation, rain, scratches

Potential Drawbacks: Can be expensive, more difficult to apply properly

Conclusion

Now that you know the difference between these products, you can make the right decision for the job at hand. I’ts easy to get overwhelmed when walking down the auto care isle, since there are just an abundance of bottles and containers. Brands tend to market very different products in a very similar manner, with a lot of overlap in what they are claiming each can do – which can be confusing.

At the end of the day, it’s really about selecting the right products you need achieve the affect you’re looking for (or deal with the types of paint imperfections you may have). Do you prefer a mirror like shine over a smooth, natural look? My recommendation is to try a few of these products out, knowing what each is capable of doing.